A pause


There has been a long pause in this blog’s reports of my work on the sonnets series. On the surface, it’s just because we had been delaying a photo session: so, although there are many more completed sonnet paintings, I didn’t have a proper photo to share. But there is a deeper reason (isn’t there ever?): I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost track – not with the painting process per se, but with my writing about it here.

It seems I’ve fallen into the life-long habit of academic writing, which implies “proving”, justifying an original insight in the manner currently accepted within the corresponding academic discipline; making it compelling to one’s peers according to established conventions. Except almost neither of these words and concepts apply here: there is no discipline of translating poems into paintings; no conventions; and it is not remotely possible to make a painting compelling with words if it doesn’t stand on its own.

What’s more, it seems increasingly clear to me that this writing style wasn’t designed to reveal, but rather to hide, even (and primarily) from myself, the profound, overwhelming effect this endeavour has on me (or, as Shakespeare would have probably written, on my self), how it has been changing me. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, but, apparently, I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of this effect. See, for this whole thing to make any sense, I had to let these sonnets deep inside, very deep indeed; and they are powerful poems. Still, after all these centuries, with more energy in them than there is in some human beings, it seems. And however far removed from my life’s outer circumstances the dramatic plot of this sequence, yet the themes they touch, the internal conflicts they lay bare – they are as essential and fundamental to me as they are to anyone; including you.

This basic truth is one of the major motivations behind this series, and the writing on this blog can only be meaningful inasmuch as it brings it closer to you. But, as it seems, I am having a hard time internalizing this truth myself; maybe because these poems are telling me more about my self than I am quite prepared to acknowledge? I am not quite sure. One thing is clear, though: I have to resolve this whole thing within before I can find a new, more authentic, approach to writing here; and it’s much more important than to keep a regular schedule.

I honestly don’t know how long it will take. It maybe that I will write about the next sonnet tomorrow. Or maybe I will delay it till the pre-birthday process of taking stock of my life is over (the process which is more profound this year than it had ever been before): then it will be after April 13. Or even after Shakespeare’s birthday…? I frankly don’t know anything except this: if I am to write about this, it has to be done as genuinely, authentically, openly as the sonnets call for. I have to give it my all, and I will: I just have to figure out how…

Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s Muse grown with the growing age

Lena Levin. Sonnet 32 painting

Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s news grown with the growing age. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 32

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,

Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.

O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:

But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love”.

Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

This is an interesting sonnet, worth re-reading to every person in the clutches of self-doubt: Shakespeare imagining a future after his death, where the “style” would progress so far that his poems would only be worth re-reading to his friend for their content (“love”), not for “their rhymes”. And it’s Shakespeare we are talking about, after all…

The painting combines an eclectic selection of books with an eclectic selection of styles, from near-realism, via impressionism, and towards bits of Mondrian in the background, as a commentary on “progression of styles”. All the stylistic play in the background notwithstanding, the still life still retains the suggestion of crowded, somewhat messy, writing desk of a scholar and reader, who might have paused with a glass of wine for a minute, to remember his deceased lover and his love distilled into rhymes.

The books are, from left to right:

Helen Vendler’s “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and Dante’s Divine Comedy on top of it. An open book of Rembrandt’s drawings and my sketchbook partly covering it. Stephen Greenblatt’s “Hamlet in Purgatory” and T.J. Clark’s “The painting of modern life” with a fragment of Manet’s “Argenteuil” (1874) on its cover.

Reading this poem from the future, a future far beyond the one imagined by Shakespeare, it opens an an avenue for fascinating run of imagination: what would have happened, indeed, had Shakespeare’s Muse grown with the growing age? And yet, I just watched yesterday Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 movie version of “Coriolanus”, set up with tanks, and automatic guns, and whatnot, “in the place they call Rome”; a growing age still fully in the power of this rather extraordinary muse.

Sonnet 30: Remembrance of things past

Lena Levin. Sonnet 30: Remembrance of things past

Sonnet 30: Remembrance of things past. 20″x20″. Oil on linen 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Patrick Stewart reading this sonnet

When I only began thinking about the “Sonnets” series, about three years ago, I dreamed about some sort of intrinsic unity between the meanings and rhythms of the sonnets and my own direct impressions, both visual and emotional, reflected in the paintings. This process, the process of painting a poem, opens a new path to the very essence of what we now call “art”, its particular blend of personal and universal, “subjective” and “objective”, internal and external.

A piece of art means anything only insofar as it touches other people in a meaningful way (pun intended), resonates with their own internal strings and melodies; in other words, goes beyond “self-expression” into something beyond, larger than life of “self”, something universal and timeless, at least so long as men can breath and eyes can see. But there is no pathway to that place except through the deepest depth of one’s own mind and memories, where arbitrary individual traits are wiped away, and our love is one with everyone’s love; and our pain, one with everyone’s pain. And yet as a rule, you are completely alone on this path; you can only hope and trust that you’ve reached out to something deep enough to be meaningful, and enacted it in your work in an adequate way.

But here, when painting a sonnet, I am not alone at all. I am guided by a man who surely knew how to do it four centuries ago. For one thing, insofar as I find the state of resonance between my inner life and his, I may be as certain as humanely possible that there I am close to something universal, relevant to all humans, or at the very least not limited to my self. Even more importantly, I am learning to find the sense of harmony between the ways these meanings and feelings are enacted in a poem and in a painting: something I hoped for when I started, but couldn’t quite believe; the intense clarity of timeless connection.

Probably as any human being who has read the sonnets over these centuries, I find myself more deeply and directly touched by some of them, more detached, at least initially, from the others. Sometimes my path to the sonnet’s core is somewhat convoluted and confused, but every once in a while, like with this one, there is no path at all: I know exactly that place within myself; these very same sessions of sweet silent thought, with their repetitive waves of remembrances and newly alive feelings.

The place in the outer world that embodies this state of mind for me is deeply personal; and it certainly didn’t even exist in Shakespeare’s time: this view of the Winter Canal in St. Petersburg, crowded by the side walls of imperial buildings, but opening into the wide expanse of the Neva River. This is the place I used to love, my personal vanished sight, filled to the brim with lyrical and romantic associations. And yet, for all glaring idiosyncrasy, “self”-ness of this choice, this memory (since it is a memory depicted here, not the actual place) lies deep enough to be a non-arbitrary counterpart for the sonnet.

Why am I so certain of this, at least as certain as I can be? Because it resonates with the sonnet on all levels, semantically and formally, visually and rhythmically; to the extent that these levels merge and exchange places. To begin with, it has flowing water — a universal embodiment of time and reflection. Albeit not directly mentioned (except for the fleeting hints in drown and flow), water is present in the sonnet, in its waves of lexical repetitions and alliterations. Even reflections are there in the poem, in its multiple lexical pairs within lines (grieve and grievances, woe and woe, pay and paid, moan and bemoaned). One thing we can be absolutely sure of that it’s not for the lack of vocabulary that Shakespeare does this; it is a straightforward enactment of the process of remembrance.

As you see, the image picks up these patterns of repetitions of the sonnet in two ways: the doubling of the image by reflections in the water, and the repetitive motives of windows, with hints of reflecting sun in the glass. And the image itself is painted as remembrance, not as a cityscape viewed in the present: the reflections are larger and, at some places, more distinct than the objects they reflect; and at the edges of memory, the clear image dissolves: into abstract brushwork on the left; and into dream-like folding of structural planes on the right. And it is also the truth of how it was painted: I haven’t been there for many years now, and I painted the place as I remembered it, quite differently from how it’s depicted in multiple photographs (it _is_ one of photographers’ favorites in St. Petersburg).

And last but not least, the colour harmony: have you ever noticed how a shift of the red towards its colder variety, in the general direction of magenta, works in the primary red-blue-yellow colour scheme? It unmistakeably shifts the tonality of a piece from major to minor, from passionate joy to quiet longing; sadder, but it’s not the intense sadness of despair, but the tender, lighter sadness of remembrance. This is the colour harmony of this sonnet, as I see it in my mind’s eye: remembering old woes in the times of happiness. And this is the colour harmony of this place: dominated by yellows of the buildings and the blues of the sky, offset by the dark and muted cold reds of the granite of the embankments and the ground floors and the lightest cold reds of northern sunlight.

Rhyming a landscape

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 66 x 96.8 cm. Oil on canvas. 1917

In many sonnets, Shakespeare employs a specif visual impression, often a landscape, as an anchor, a visual embodiment of his meaning. For a painter on a quest like mine, a translation of poems into paintings, rhymes into colours, this presents both a relief and a special challenge.

The relief part should be obvious: it’s a path to imagery, which, albeit individual in its details, is universal enough for me to “ground” in my own visual impressions, which are the most immediate and “easy” painting material. This blog already contains a couple of paintings so grounded, most obviously this, “Sonnet 12″ painting. The challenge arises because Shakespeare doesn’t leave the intended “human”, emotional interpretation of the sonnet unnamed: we are told, more or less directly and in plain language, how exactly this particular imagery is linked to the sonnet’s meaning. A painter doesn’t really have this luxury, at least not within general stylistic constraints implicitly defining this project.

Consider Sonnet 33, which I am working on now. Its first two couplets seem completely devoid of personal feelings and dedicated to a (commonly seen) landscape:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace.

Strictly speaking, there are rather two landscapes here: one with the sun flattering the earth with his presence, the other with the sun unseen, hidden by the basest clouds. But that would be the least of my problems in a “painterly” representation of this poem: as Shakespeare notes, these lighting conditions can replace one another so fast (both in England and in Northern California) that a depiction of one can suggest another. I, for one, have several plein air paintings which play on a combination of both impressions,
this one, for instance:

Lena Levin. Alameda -- rain and sun. 30.5 x 61 cm. 2010

Lena Levin. Alameda — rain and sun. 30.5 x 61 cm. 2010


But Shakespeare not only uses anthropomorphic vocabulary in his description of the landscape, he continues with a direct superimposition of human affairs onto the landscape just described, equating his beloved with the sun:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

The interpretation is not as straightforward as it might seem (I will return to it later, when I present my painting for this sonnet), but the fact remains: the identification between the sun and the beloved is stated as plainly and directly as possible.

But a fleeting temptation to do something like this in a painting (after all, it would be no problem to suggest a human face within a circle depicting the sun, or something to that effect), this fleeting temptation goes away as soon as we understand that this direct identification is not what makes the poem work. The genuine humanization of the landscape, its emotional interpretation, lies in the verse. And so a painter has to find the corresponding effects in the paint, in colours and lines.

This brings me back to the Chagall painting with which this blog post somewhat enigmatically begins. Here it is again, a bit larger:

This is a landscape (or, to be more exact, a cityscape); in fact, quite a detailed depiction of specific visual reality: there is a town on the other side of the river, with churches and large buildings, separate from the river by a wall (but reflected in it), and a poorly wooden cabin on “our” side of the river, barely holding together (and even a person inside, if you look closely); you can even see every piece of timber and every brick.

There is no “literal” information in the painting that another interpretation might be intended, but it nonetheless leaves us in no doubt that it is not “just” a representation of some visual impression. This information is conveyed primarily by colour: the “real” colours are heightened and intensified to reach the six core components of the “colour wheel”: its dominated by three primary colours, blue, yellow and red (in that order), with an additional minor role played by three secondaries, green, violet, and orange (also in that order). No “reality” would ever look like this, but this depiction (or reinterpretation) seems convincing and harmonious nonetheless.

We know for a fact that, although a house can be blue, a log cabin like this cannot; this color is as unrealistic as the green of Chagall’s green cows and fiddlers. That this blueness is contrasted to all other colors of the rainbow in the surrounding landscape and to conspicuously dirty yellowish sky, tells us to search for a human, personal interpretation as clearly as though were instructed to do so by some sort of Shakespeare’s “even so” (as in the third couplet above).

We might differ in the exact emotional interpretation (and our interpretation might differ from Chagall’s intentions), but isn’t this the same in the poem: does the speaker of the sonnet accuse his lover of betrayal and disgrace (as suggested by the language of the first two quatrain)? Does he still idolize him as “the sun”  (as in the third quatrain)? Does he remain philosophically neutral about it (as suggested in the couplet)?  Probably all of this, and then more.

My Shakespeare: Readiness is all

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post continues the series I began about a month ago, “My Shakespeare”, and I want to begin to talk directly about one of Shakespeare’s deepest and most essential contribution to our worldview (or even, arguably, the deepest one): his construal of death, and of our relationships with the dead.

What if fascinating about the sonnets sequence is how unabashedly atheistic its speaker’s attitude to death is. For him, there is no eternal after-life, nothing beyond death’s eternal cold – in a striking contrast to, say, John Donne, or even to somewhat more complex and ambiguous approach in Shakespeare’s own plays (about which I will also probably talk somewhat later). It is even more striking when one recalls that the structure of the afterlife, and the ability of the living to influence their loved ones’ fate there, in the wake of their death, was a hot political issue of the time.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death's eternal cold

Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

For the speaker of the sonnets – and he does talk about death, and the fragility and fleeting nature of human existence, quite a lot – there are only two paths to eternity: procreation, and art (which is to say, human memory). No other routes to salvation, no options of life beyond death. The immediate reason for this post is that, in the course of the last week’s work, I suddenly clearly understood how is that possible – not in our times, when atheism is more or less common, but in his time.

And the answer was: the speaker of the sonnet is always in the world of the survivors, the world of the living. In other words, he is not concerned with his own death and what will come after it; he only thinks of the future death of his beloved, and the empty world left behind. Whatever one’s specific spiritual beliefs, they don’t really matter from this point of view: we mourn independently of whether or not there is a promise of heaven.

Recall this mother in Michelangelo’s statue shown above? For all we know, if there ever was a mother who had no reason to mourn, who could feel assured that her son’s troubles were over and his glorious future assured, it is this one. But mourning doesn’t really know reason, and is not assuaged by beliefs, and so she mourns. Isn’t that the truth for all of us? Isn’t it the empty mortal world left by our beloved ones, not the future after our own death, that’s really frightening?

New series: My Shakespeare

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post introduces a new category on this blog, “My Shakespeare”. I borrow this name from Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay, “My Pushkin”, which impressed me very powerfully as a girl (and Pushkin is, in a sense, the Russian counterpart to Shakespeare, albeit much closer to us in time). In this first post, I will try and begin to approach the core question – what is it all about?

Marina Tsvetaeva begins her story with a very early childhood, when she first met Pushkin, in the form of a monument, in the park where her nanny used to bring her, and her brother and sister,  for walks. She didn’t even know then that “Pushkin” and “monument” were two different words; as so often happens with small children, the words were glued together, unanalyzed, as a single concept. The monument was very, very large and very, very black; and as such, it was in a stark contrast with a small white doll she used to bring with her. She recalls comparing their contrasting sizes with her own self, and thinking that however many of such dolls one might put together, one on another, one wouldn’t get a Pushkin-monument. And even a hundred, or a million, such dolls together wouldn’t make one me, she thinks to herself; but – with a pride – maybe, just maybe, a hundred of me, put one on another, might just make one Pushkin-monument! The very concept of building such a tower out of one’s self must have made a powerful impression on me, because isn’t it what I am striving to do here, when all is said and done?

But what I really wanted to tell you about is a somewhat later memory, when she was about to see a sea for the first time in her life; she knew that her name, Marina, referred to sea, and she was in love with a poem, by Pushkin, about sea. The poem’s rhythms and words were so powerful, so magically enchanting, that she expected to be overwhelmed by her own, “real life” meeting with a sea – but the actual impression was nowhere even close to the image created by the poem in her mind. And so Pushkin’s sea, the one embodied and enacted in his poem, remained the real sea, even as she later learned to love “geographical”, real-life seas herself.

Why have I chosen Michelangelo’s Pieta as the image for this post? Because there is a distinct affinity, in my mind at least, between Tsvetaeva’s sea and Michelangelo’s grief of a mourning mother. At the time this sculpture was made he was in his early twenties – a boy, really; there was simply no way he could have known the feeling he so powerfully conveyed here from personal experience. And yet he had to know it – otherwise, this work would have been impossible. Where from? One theory argues that it was from “The Divine Comedy”, but whatever specific sources might have been, I have no doubts whatsoever that he got it from the ocean of Art, and made it his own – so much so that he could express it in this nearly unbearably real way, and thereby share it further.

(To be continued…)


Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012.

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


Click here to listen to Jemma Redgrave reading this sonnet.

One theory about Shakespeare sonnets is that the sequence started as a commission, in which the poet was engaged by someone to convince his young patron to marry and procreate, a topic which didn’t really touch Shakespeare on a personal level at the time. As the sequence progresses, two things begin to happen: the speaker’s love of the young man becomes more and more personal, passionate, and urgent; and he gradually gives up the idea of replicating his beloved through procreation. What takes its place is the idea much more significant to Shakespeare, and to his readers as well: the eternalizing power of art, more specifically, of his own poetry.

The fifth sonnet is the first time in the sequence where this idea is hinted at – it will disappear again in the next one, for some time, to return, much more explicitly and powerfully, later on. Here, what is suggested as a strategy against the winter of old age and death which inevitably destroys the beauty of summer is distillation. Shakespeare may seem simply to explore one more metaphor of procreation, but the process of making flowers into perfume – to be pent in walls of glass – creates something so essentially different from the original, that this metaphor leads him to a totally new meaning. After all, what the speaker was worrying about earlier in the sequence was preservation of the young man’s beauty (“show”); here, there is no hope of saving the “show”, only the “substance” may survive the coming winter.

In my series, the art of poetry and eternalizing power of language must needs be replaced with the art of painting and eternalizing power of colour, and this is the first painting which begins to play with this concept. The major challenge posed by this aspect of translation is, of course, the opposition between “show” and “substance”: in the obvious sense, a painting is always about the “show” (as Shakespeare himself would remind us repeatedly later in the sequence).

For this first instance of Shakespeare’s engagement with this opposition, I chose to translate the loss of “show” as the loss of colour, contrasting the left vertical golden section rectangle, with it’s fully saturated colour harmony, and the right third of the painting, in which some muted ochres remain only in the background, and flowers themselves leese their colour (and lose their lusty leaves) and retain only their basic geometry. On another level, this loss of colour can be read as flowers being checked with frost, oversnowed – thus bringing in the second, wintery, quatrain of the sonnet.

The painting uses Shakespeare’s mention of frame in the first quatrain to introduce the “frame within frame” device, which transforms the canvas from just a depiction of flowers into an image aware of its being a painting. The internal, slanted, frame is ambiguous between two readings: It may be the frame of the painting – so that the painting represents both flowers themselves and a floral painting being painted (flowers distilled), or it may be the frame of a mirror in which real flowers are reflected, thus playing on Shakespeare’s original metaphor of their substance pent in walls of glass.

The first step

A collage of first nine sonnet paintings

This image is a collage of the first nine sonnet paintings.

Apart from the first glimpse into this series, it is intended to introduce the major “constants” of its geometry: each painting is a 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm) square, and each is composed around a vertical and a horizontal located at the “golden section”. These divisions can be more or less prominent, there is some variety as to whether the horizontal is closer to the top or to the bottom, and the vertical, to the left or to the right, but the basic geometric structure remains constant throughout the series.

This geometric constant is intended as my visual counterpart to the constants of the sonnet structure. Like the classical structure of the sonnet, it allows for an interesting balance between constraints and flexibility; visually, this basic structure creates a variety of overlapping golden section rectangles which work well independently of the subject matter.